Did the Soviet Union win the war?

AD Harvey asserts that if we consider the Second World War statistically and geographically, the other Allies' contribution to victory at least rivalled that of the USSR. Later, Richard Overy responds to this claim

Soldiers of the Soviet Union

Since the publication of Richard Overy’s book Russia’s War in 1997 it has been fashionable to assert that the Soviet Union’s contribution to the military defeat of Nazi Germany and her allies far outstripped that of Britain and the United States. At the time of the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942 there were four German divisions in North Africa and 179 in Russia. In late 1944, there were 65 German divisions in north-west Europe opposed to 91 British and American divisions, and 235 German divisions on the Eastern Front opposed to 560 Soviet divisions. At least 70 per cent of German battle casualties occurred on the Eastern Front.

Advertisement

The losses Germany and her allies suffered in terms of those killed and prisoners of war are probably the best means available of estimating the comparative contribution of the various allied powers. The United States suffered 250,000 fatalities in the Second World War. The Soviet authorities claimed a death toll of 25 million, but nobody would pretend that Russia’s contribution to the defeat of the Nazis was a hundred times greater than that of the US. The financial burden of the war is equally unhelpful as a way of calculating the contribution of various belligerents. Labour costs were much higher in the US than in either Russia or Japan, though in areas such as the manufacture of explosives, superior technology made output per man-hour greater in the US. Many American planes were, weight for weight, much more complex than rival aircraft, but on the other hand the famous Schmeisser sub-machine gun used by the German army had three times more components than the British Sten gun and was thus in terms of labour and tooling significantly more expensive to manufacture, and other German mass-produced weapons were similarly complex.

If, however, we use casualties inflicted by the Allies as our measure of comparative contribution, we have to consider more than German military casualties. The Germans provided the bulk of the Axis and pro-Axis forces engaged on the Eastern Front, supported by troops from Romania, Hungary, Finland and Italy. In Africa, Britain’s main opponent was initially Italy. By October 1943, the British and Americans had accumulated 546,930 Italian prisoners of war and the Russians, 19,648, though it is possible that rather more Italian soldiers had died on the Eastern Front than in Africa. If we factor in the dead and prisoners of war of Germany’s European allies we find that a total of 6,560,000 German, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian and Finnish combatants were killed or taken prisoner – 66.5 per cent on the Eastern Front.

These however are military – uniformed – casualties. The British and Americans also invested massively in operations that involved inflicting civilian casualties, forcing the Germans to devote 30 per cent of their artillery production to the manufacture of heavy anti-aircraft guns. The Soviet Air Force carried out raids on German cities on a much smaller scale – much the worst attack was on Tilsit in April 1943 when 104 civilians were killed, in comparison with the 35,000 who died in the Hamburg Raids later in the year. With civilian air raid casualties factored in, the Soviet contribution to German casualties falls to 61 per cent.

The war in the Far East raises new problems of comparability. The difficulties of terrain, climate and distance made the Burma and Pacific campaigns an astonishing – and expensive – logistic achievement, but only three campaigns, all of them in 1945, involved Japanese armies of more than 100,000. These were Okinawa, Luzon and, the largest of all, the defence of Manchuria against the sudden onslaught of the Russians in August 1945, in which 84,000 people died and 590,000 prisoners of war were taken. The Russian offensive opened three days after the A-bomb destroyed Hiroshima and the Japanese army in Manchuria knew that the war was lost.

Prior to August 1945 only a handful of Japanese soldiers had ever surrendered to the Allies. It would seem reasonable to place the troops in Manchuria who surrendered to the Russians in the same category as the troops in Malaya and the Philippines who surrendered later according to the terms of the capitulation of the Japanese government. Japan lost 1,134,000 military personnel in the course of fighting with British Empire and US forces, and 500,000 civilians were killed in the bombing of Japanese cities. This makes the toll, in fatalities and prisoners of war inflicted on the enemy, east and west, about equal for the western Allies and for Russia.

This is very much a crude round-figure calculation, taking no account of the fact that the Americans had to travel much further from their borders to engage the enemy. There is, however, one aspect of the logistics of the war that cannot be overlooked. It would become impossibly complicated if we attempted to factor in the relative cost of, say, an American-manufactured tank compared to a Russian-manufactured tank, but some account has to be taken of the fact that a great deal of equipment used by the Soviet armed forces would not have been available if the British and Americans had not, at vast expense, supplied it to them.

Soviet pilots in US planes

Britain and America between them provided 12 per cent of the Soviet armed forces’ aircraft and nine per cent of their tanks. Both the second and third highestscoring Soviet fighter aces shot down most of their victims while piloting American-built Bell P-39 fighters. The Americans also supplied most of the aluminium the Russians needed to build their own aircraft and a large proportion of the boots and cloth for uniforms needed to dress their soldiers. Moreover, the Americans supplied four-fifths of the trucks the Red Army needed for its advance all the way to Berlin.

The transportation of this material occasioned the loss of 558,961 tons of western merchant shipping, mostly on the Arctic run to Murmansk, which involved the Royal Navy in battles that were on a much larger scale than any fought by the Soviet navy. Much of the supply from the United States was via ports in the Persian Gulf, half way round the world from the American coast. Between October 1943 and September 1944 there were 201 sailings for Russia from American ports in comparison with 313 sailings for the Pacific theatre, which was only half the distance from Los Angeles, as was the Persian Gulf. At least one sixth of the material resources expended by Soviet Russia in resisting Germany can be credited to British and American supplies, and bearing in mind the effort involved in bringing these supplies to Soviet ports it seems not unreasonable to make a reduction of one sixth to the Russian side of the equation. The Soviet contribution to defeating Germany and her European allies was about equal to that of Britain and the United States: her contribution to the defeat of Germany and her allies, including Japan, was more like 46 per cent of the total Allied effort.

One final point. There was nothing in Russia’s war effort comparable to the Battle of the Atlantic, or to the raids by over 1,000 four-engined bombers carried out by both the RAF and the USAAF in 1945, but the Battle of Kursk is recognised as the greatest tank battle in history. Most of the tanks destroyed were Russian ones, whereas German losses were scarcely greater than at the Battle of El Alamein. Counting Italian armour in the latter battle, more Axis tanks were lost at El Alamein than at Kursk.

AD Harvey’s most recent book is Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007)

BOOKS Figures for casualties are mainly from the Encyclopedia Americana, though see also Das Heer 1933–1945: Entwicklung Des Organisatorischen Aufbaues by Burkhart Müller-Hillebrand (Frankfurt, 1969) and The National Archives, (Kew, HO 213/1881).

For statistics for Lend-Lease supply and Soviet domestic production see Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars 1793–1945 by AD Harvey (London, 1994), and Soviet Planning in Peace and War 1938–1945 by Mark Harrison (Cambridge, 1985)


A question of timing

Richard Overy argues that the statistics alone do not convey the importance of the Soviet armed forces in decisive moments of the war

It may be fashionable now to argue that the Soviet Union’s contribution to the defeat of Germany in the Second World War ‘far outstripped’ that of the other major Allied powers. However it is unlikely that any serious historian of the Second World War would ignore the substantial contribution made by all three – the Soviet Union, the United States and the British Commonwealth and Empire – to the defeat of Germany and her allies and Axis partners. Nonetheless, the Soviet contribution is not to be lightly set aside.

First it is well to be clear about what is being compared. The American war effort was divided of necessity between Europe and the Pacific. Defeat of Japan was costly and the cost was borne almost entirely by the forces of the United States, assisted by British, Indian and Australasian contingents. The Soviet Union made virtually no contribution to this sector of the war save a brief and belated assault on Manchuria in the last week of the Pacific War. The British war effort was devoted for much of the first three years of the war to defeating Italy in East and North Africa and the Mediterranean naval war. Again it is common knowledge that the Soviet Union contributed nothing to the defeat of Hitler’s Italian partner.

In both these important theatres the western Allies’ role was entirely their own, and no one would deny that victory here was also a necessity, but it did mean inevitably that the western powers had to divide their effort.

It is on the defeat of Germany and her smaller allies and co-belligerents (Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Finland) that the argument about the Soviet contribution is based. For the Soviet Union this was, for obvious geopolitical reasons, the only war they could fight, a straight contest with the bulk of the German armed forces on land, by far the largest element of German mobilised manpower.

There are various ways in which the relative contribution of the three Allies might be measured, but mere statistics tell little. A comparison of losses inflicted on Germany by the three major Allies is all but meaningless as a measurement because it takes no account of change through time or the special circumstances in which, for example, millions of German POWs entered American and British captivity in the last months of the war. Losses say little about battle performance, fighting power and strategic insight. Indeed anyone ignorant of the outcome of the war might view Soviet losses (estimated at 27 million dead) as an indication that the Soviet Union must have lost the war.

The critical issue is surely what might have happened in 1941–2 if the Soviet Union, for all the crudity of its war-making and the terrible sacrifice of soldiers and equipment through tactical ineptitude, had decided – as surely any other state would have done – to give up the fight or had been decisively beaten in the field. Under these circumstances it is difficult to see how Britain and the United States could possibly have created a large enough force to reconquer Europe against a German army with perhaps 200 or more divisions around the European perimeter. Bombing would have done something but by then German arms production would have been diverted to large-scale air and submarine production to keep the west at bay.

Soviet strategy

The argument is not about body counts but about the capacity of the Soviet Union to reform its armed forces, expand its military production and rethink its operational strategy in 1942. This laid the foundation for eventual victory and no juggling with the figures will disguise the fact that the great bulk of German armed forces were allocated to the task of first conquering the Soviet Union and then, when the plan went wrong, keeping it at bay. During this crucial period the British and American direct contribution was very small.

No one would deny that Lend-Lease was important (its significance is positively assessed in Russia’s War) but this got going only in 1943; Alamein tied down a tiny German force (two-thirds were Italian in the battle); bombing in 1942 had scarcely begun to do what it achieved by 1944–5. Later in the war US and British contributions became larger, and the Soviet Union could not have defeated Germany on its own, as Stalin once claimed to Marshal Zhukov, but the critical battles from Stalingrad to Operation Bagration, in 1944, made the task for the western Allies much easier. Even so Normandy was no walkover, against a much smaller force than anything on the Eastern Front.

Number-crunching tells us interesting things about the war effort, but like a comparison of economic resources, it does not tell us enough. The Soviet contribution to the defeat of the Axis powers as a whole was clearly more modest; but the contribution made in the critical turning-point year of 1942 to holding Germany’s advance and inflicting the first major defeats was a decisive element in the victory over Hitler’s huge armed forces.

Richard Overy is a professor of history at Exeter University. He is author of Why the Allies Won (Cape, 2007).

Advertisement

This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine